Ahead of the publication of our latest report on Basic Income we wanted to get a read on public attitudes to the idea – and most particularly test whether there was any appetite for experimentation. Our major takeaway is that the public are open to a conversation about Universal Basic Income and, more importantly, tilt towards experimentation.
The RSA has been an advocate for testing Basic Income. So it was encouraging when the Scottish Government allocated budget towards testing the feasibility of UBI pilots with four localities – Fife, Glasgow, North Ayrshire and Edinburgh. And this week the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell MP, has expressed support for UBI pilots in the UK. Our poll shows that the public is broadly aligned or at least comfortable with these positions.
There are a number of key takeaways from our survey undertaken with Populus.
People are most likely to see the welfare state as needed to protect the vulnerable and those in need as opposed to supporting contribution and those who have ‘worked hard’, changing individual behaviour or ‘supporting common ways of life’ such as the family.
Protecting the needy and vulnerable was the favoured option for 54 percent. This was followed by 23 percent who favour supporting contribution and ‘paying in’ over time. This might mean that contribution based systems, aligned with the moral notion of reciprocity and ‘getting out what you put in’ may no longer command the strongest public support. Some European models are based on this foundation and elements of the Beveridgean UK system that remain such as the Basic State Pension are built on these foundations. The popularity of the latter may rest on its universal rather than contributory elements. Support for the state interfering in individual behaviours is relatively weak at 6 percent. Sanctions are designed to do this and there may be a question over whether public support for hard conditionality might be as strong as is often supposed for such interventions is they are framed as the state interfering.
Critically, these survey findings show that any welfare system will have to demonstrate the bottom-line need of supporting the vulnerable. It might be seen that targeted or means-tested systems might be the most aligned response in this regard. And yet, that is precisely the type of system we have and it doesn’t seem to have widespread public support and acceptance.
Support for the principle of Basic Income is significant.
Support tilts in favour of Basic Income in principle by more than two to one. 41 percent are in favour and 17 percent against. That leaves a significant number who either don’t know or are neutral. More men are in favour but this seems to be a result of women more likely to say they don’t know. Fewer women (16 percent) than men (18 percent) are against.
Now, we asked the question ‘in principle’ and other surveys have shown that support declines when respondents are asked to respond to express a view on a Basic Income funded by income tax. So we do not take anything more from this finding than there is some significant openness to the idea. Those who wish to engage the public in a constructive conversation about Basic Income may well take some comfort from these findings. They certainly constitute a basis for further public dialogue.
The current system is seen as failing and Basic Income is seen as a favourable alternative.
By 45 percent to 13 percent respondents see Basic Income as superior in providing a basic level of security compared to the current system. 44 percent disagree that the current system is working so there is no need to consider alternatives with 19 percent agreeing. And 47 percent see Basic Income as superior to the current system in allowing people to make the right decisions for them and their families. 12 percent disagree with this.
These findings are fascinating. The strongest arguments in favour of Basic Income emphasise the failures of the current system (as evidenced by the National Audit Office and the Welfare Conditionality report) alongside articulating the fact that Basic Income provides a greater foundation of economic security whilst enabling individuals and families to make the best decisions to suit their particular circumstances. The public, in general, are inclined to support these propositions.
But there are significant concerns - cost and targeting are the main ones - and some of the potential benefits aren’t yet seen.
Mirroring the question on helping the needy, respondents were more likely to favour targeted rather universal support, to favour services over cash by 43 percent to 27 percent, and thought it unaffordable by 38 percent to 16 percent. Advocates of Basic Income would contend that this is one reason for experiments so that the comprehensive nature of Basic Income and its utility can be demonstrated – not least because as we see with the current system targeting actually misses its target too often. And when it does, destitution can result.
Benefits seen in previous Basic Income experiments to public health and education aren’t yet seen in relation to Basic Income by our survey respondents. But the reduction of stigma is acknowledged as a strong characteristic of the idea (and this could well be connected to the fact that the current system or means-tested alternatives might not actually meet the needs of the vulnerable and needy). Also of interest is the fact that roughly equal levels of respondents see Basic Income as benefiting their family as not. As the way in which Basic Income works becomes more widely understood, this would likely shift to the positive column (as the benefits of a universal payment are inevitably widespread).
On the contentious issue of work incentives there was a seemingly contradictory response. Basic Income is seen as creating a disincentive to work compared with the current system by a 42 percent to 21 percent margin. Yet, 56 percent agreed that the payments would provide a strong incentive to work as less of one’s earnings are withdrawn as you earn under Basic Income than the current benefits. From the perspective of this survey, you could say the jury is out.
There is support for local experimentation
There is a thread of experimentalism in the survey response. Forty percent of respondents were in favour of experiments in their local area with 15 percent against. This suggests that the Scottish Government in its decision to support basic income feasibilities can be assured it is on relatively safe ground with the public.
The broader survey results indicate there is still the need for a wider civic conversation about Basic Income and its likely impacts. Nothing will inform that conversation better than some real stories of the impacts that can emerge out of local experimentalism.
What about funding?
Not surprisingly there is preference for any being Basic Income funded by progressive taxation, wealth taxes, levies on data (see our work on the Universal Basic Opportunity Fund) and reducing expenditure on benefits. These options were all favoured by over 30 percent. Less than 20 percent favour funding a Basic Income via increasing ordinary income tax rates. Advocates of Basic Income should take this on board and consider models that don’t lean heavily on income tax.
Opponents and proponents of Basic Income will use these results to suit their respective purposes. Our intention was to further inform the debate. The most important message is the relative openness of people to explore the idea and see it tested in local pilots. And for a guide on how to go about these pilots and ensure they are robust, credible and innovative, I recommend today’s new RSA report, Realising Basic Income Experiments in the UK.
I have seen frustrated opponents of Basic Income on social media furiously wonder why Basic Income doesn’t just go away. This survey shows why not – there is deep concern about the current system’s efficacy and a sense of a need for an alternative with Basic Income seen as a contender. And, let’s be frank, the public seem more open to seeing alternatives explored than many experts and adherents to political factions. Let the public conversation continue.